Well-positioned for switch to `46'

With the personnel to execute a high-pressure scheme, the defense looks to regain its status as the most dominant unit in the league

Rethinking the Ravens

September 08, 2005|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Six years ago, Ravens coach Brian Billick arrived in Baltimore with a reputation for ingenuity and adaptability.

Who knew then those attributes would manifest themselves on defense?

The Ravens' defense under Billick, widely considered an offensive whiz from his time as coordinator with the record-setting Minnesota Vikings, has evolved from a passive zone out of a 4-3 alignment his inaugural year to a high-pressure package with an unorthodox front line, but the coach is not taking the credit.

It's the players, Billick says, who have forced a transformation in styles.

"The whole reason why we're doing what we're doing is because of our personnel," Billick said. "You can't just adopt a philosophy and try and plug players in. You have to look at the talent you have."

Days away from debuting the 46 defense, a formation the team could use 25 percent of the time or more depending on the opponent and situation, Ravens players and coaches are abuzz with anticipation that the defense will again become the NFL's most feared and effective unit.

The Ravens held that distinction in the 2000 season, when the team won the Super Bowl and set an NFL record for fewest points allowed (165) in a 16-game season. They used a 4-3 defense that year under coordinator Marvin Lewis, rushing primarily four defensive linemen and giving help to their cornerbacks.

A switch to a 3-4 defense came after the 2001 season, when Lewis left and Mike Nolan took over. Nolan faced a salary cap purge that left the Ravens with just three starters from their Super Bowl defense, necessitating a change the team stayed with for three seasons before Nolan departed to become head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

Now, under the direction of coordinator Rex Ryan, the Ravens have given glimpses of a front that puts six defenders on the line of scrimmage and figures to produce its share of one-on-one matchups.

One thing is certain: None of this was planned. Billick, as calculated and detailed as any NFL coach, admitted that he's just going with the flow on defense. Players dictate schemes, not vice versa.

"I didn't come in here and say, `Here's what we're going to do. We're going to be a passive zone, [transition] into a 3-4 through a cap purge, and then we'll be an aggressive 46.' ...

"It would have been a mistake to take the group we have now and shove them into what we did in 2000, 2001 -- as much as it would be a mistake to take that 2000, 2001 group and think they can do what we're doing now.`

Creating mismatches

Ravens officials say this defense is built to cause havoc, and there were glimpses of that in the preseason. In the first three games, the starting defense gave up just one touchdown in 14 possessions, forced five three-and-outs and caused two turnovers.

The Ravens stayed true to their blitzing philosophy, sending extra rushers more than half the time in passing situations, even if not from a 46 front. The results weren't overwhelming, but the Ravens feel good about where they stand heading into Sunday night's opening showdown with the Indianapolis Colts.

"Our third-down [defense] during the preseason, I've been really proud of," said Ryan, entering his first season as an NFL coordinator. "Statistically, we're doing a pretty good job on third downs [holding opponents to a 22.6 percent success rate]. That's a huge down on defense."

To win third-down battles, most defenses have to force offenses into long-yardage situations, where the Ravens are expecting to capitalize on mismatches.

Ravens coaches feel that their defensive talent is so great, there will be no shortage of mismatches. This is where the team's reliance on the 46 defense comes in.

With six men crowding the line of scrimmage, even if all are accounted for, the offense probably cannot devote two blockers to one player. That leaves talented players like Terrell Suggs or Tony Weaver with more chances for single blocking.

"If you can get a one-on-one block with a defensive lineman against an offensive lineman, you hope you can win," Weaver said. "They always say an offensive lineman would be a defensive lineman, he's just not as much of an athlete."

In addition to pressuring the quarterback, this defense is designed to let a safety (Will Demps) move forward in run support, leaving the starting cornerbacks (Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle) more likely to see one-on-one action.

It may lead to more pass-interference penalties, but also to a rise in errant throws from hurried quarterbacks.

"The ball is live," McAlister said. "It's going to come out quick. We don't have to sit back and wait four seconds. It allows you to play faster -- see less and play faster as a corner."

Middle linebacker Ray Lewis figures to see his share of favorable battles as well, even when the Ravens are in the basic 4-3 setup.

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